These days, some of the harshest criticism of Facebook is coming from executives who helped create it. Last month, Sean Parker, founding president of the company, revealed that the service was intentionally designed to be as much of a time suck as possible. Now Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook's one-time VP of user growth and now the founder of VC firm Social Capital, has lashed out at his former employer during an onstage interview at Stanford.
Speaking at an insurance event, Parker described how likes and shares were created to give user's brains a "dopamine hit" that compels them to post more content in pursuit of more dopamine. Now Palihapitiya offers more insights on the effect of those dopamine hits--multiplied by Facebook's more than two billion users.
"I feel tremendous guilt," he said, when asked about his time at Facebook, adding that he believes the social network's creators understood that it could have negative consequences. Then he said, "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth, and it's not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads, this is a global problem." And a very dangerous one. "Bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything you want," he added.
Two billion dopamine addicts
The problem is that we're all addicted to Facebook's dopamine hits. "We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded with short-term signals--hearts, likes, thumbs-up--and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth, and instead what it really is is fake, brittle popularity that's short term and leaves you even more--admit it--vacant and empty than before you did it. It forces you into this vicious cycle where what's the next thing I need to do now because I need it back. Think about that compounded by two billion people."
The only solution, he says, is to take a step back from Facebook: "If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it." That's why, he said, "People need to hard break from some of these tools and the things you rely on."
That's what Palihapitiya says he's done, posting fewer than 10 times in the past seven years, although that's created "huge tensions" between him and his friends. "I guess I kind of innately didn't want to get programmed so I tuned it out," he said, adding that his kids are not permitted to use social media.
"Everybody else has to soul search about what you're willing to do," he continued. "Because, you don't realize it, but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you have to decide how much you're willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence." And--he told his prestigious business school audience--the smarter and more successful you are, the likelier you are to be sucked in, because you've been checking boxes (i.e., trying to do everything right) your entire life.
The Stanford video of Palihapitiya's interview has gotten passed around quite a bit. Perhaps that's why Facebook sent an official response to Business Insider:
"Chamath has not been at Facebook for over 6 years. When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then, and as we have grown, we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We've done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we're using it to inform our product development."
It's great to know that Facebook takes its role in society and its effect on users seriously. At the same time, it's clear that the problems with social media Palihapitiya described at Stanford are very much with us today, and that using Facebook is no less addictive now than it was then.
What does all this mean for your own Facebook and other social media use? Only you can decide. But if, like so many people, you find yourself spending large portions of your time on Facebook even when you intended to do something else, or you're in a constant state of either ecstasy or outrage, owing to the infuriating articles or cute animal videos you find there ... maybe it's time to seriously consider Palihapitiya's advice to take a step back from it all. At least for a little while.